Get Paid To Be Yourself: The Business Of Being Dame Dash

By Julian Mitchell 

Every disruptive entrepreneur shares an innate drive to defy convention, fueled by an inherent sixth sense that equips each innovator with the foresight to spot future trends and unfilled voids within industries.

While history holds a place for visionaries who challenge the boundaries of possibility, pioneers aren’t often praised for shifting paradigms and redefining business models in the moment. Since trendsetters are tasked with bravely planting the flag first, being a trailblazer is a role reserved for the few that fearlessly embrace being ahead of their time.

Although these change-makers don’t desire acceptance, withstanding the wrath of skepticism that inevitably follows the introduction of new ideas and ideologies is never easy. Surviving the scrutiny and persecution that accompany acts of rebellion demands an unapologetic attitude only a rare breed of leaders possess. It takes courage to stand alone and fight for what you believe when the world can’t conceive your vision. Yet, the great reward of standing your ground amidst opposition is seeing what was once denied or dismissed manifest into a reality bigger than what you imagined. One entrepreneur who embodies this relentless spirit of independence is Dame Dash.

Labeled as a brash and polarizing figure in the music business, Dash developed a looming reputation for clashing with prominent executives over issues of ownership, value and properly respecting the culture. His unfiltered and outspoken remarks have made headlines, unapologetically exposing industry powers for exploiting artists, copying trends and robbing creators. Though his message has taken many forms throughout the years, his core message remains consistent: be your own boss, own your influence and stay true to yourself at all times. While his position amongst the most influential people to shape Hip Hop culture can be debated in the court of popular opinion, what Dash embodies has undoubtedly paved a path for today’s generation of independent creators and entrepreneurs.

Founding Roc-A-Fella records in 1995, alongside Jay-Z and Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke, the iconic rap imprint sold millions of units worldwide, releasing a decorated list of era-defining hits throughout a celebrated run that lasted nearly two decades. The label boasted a roster that included Kanye West, Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek, State Property, The Diplomats, Just Blaze and DJ Clue.

In addition to solidifying himself as a music mogul, Dash expanded his enterprise into the fashion and lifestyle space, growing Rocawear into a prominent urban apparel company that eventually sold to Iconix in 2007 for a reported $204 million. Dame later opened the doors to DD172, an art gallery and creative collective in New York, in addition to founding Creative Control — a digital media platform that explored the intersection of music, art and culture. His growing portfolio of business ventures also includes a spirits brand, CEO clothing company and Dame Dash Studios.

His latest endeavor is the Dash Diabetes Network, a multi-media lifestyle platform that offers tips, tools and solutions for the 27 million people actively battling with diabetes. Living as a Type 1 diabetic for 31 years, Dash will bring together a community of musicians, artists, filmmakers, holistic doctors and other health experts to share their stories and educate the masses about the realties of managing the disease. Through a diverse slate of programming, Dash hopes to raise awareness and show that being diabetic is a lifestyle, ultimately urging millions to adopt healthier habits across various areas of their lives. Launching the network in partnership with Mannkind Corporation, the makers of Afrezza, viewers will also be updated on the latest innovations, medicines, exercises and culinary recipes.

I spoke with Dame about his business model, guiding principles, and the vision behind his new lifestyle network.

The same relentless fight for ownership and independence that got you scrutinized early in your career would lead to praise for you in this era — do you feel like you kicked that door down for today’s generation?

Dame Dash: Definitely, I did it on purpose and it’s been a long time coming. For years, logically speaking, it didn’t make any sense for us to be doing all of the work and not have ownership or anything to pass down to our family. I’ve always articulated that, but because of people’s fear, they’ve always turned their back on me or looked the other way. When I was young, I read the Bible, and I already knew what it meant to be the good guy — and look what happened to Jesus. So, I already understood that you get ridiculed for telling the truth, and I’ve always been aware of that. But, I’m a guy with confidence, and I’m not afraid. I always approach logic without emotion. The math always equals the math. Regardless of whether I discovered the math before anyone else, or I just decided to accept it, I know what logically makes sense and I’m going to speak on it every time. If people aren’t listening, then I like to have fun with it, especially with people who exploit or take advantage of people who don’t understand. My delivery can be intense, but it’s intense because I need to be heard. I know that people don’t usually listen, as it relates to constructive criticism, without getting offended. So, I speak my mind with an attitude that I don’t care if you get offended, I just want you to get the message.

What did you see back then that made you take on the challenge of speaking up and going to war for artists? 

Dame Dash: I didn’t like the way I was being treated individually, so I would articulate my feelings. The people who weren’t treating me fairly — I didn’t feel like they were cooler or smarter than me. So, the way to get back at them was to make them uncomfortable — whether that be laughing at them, messing with their girl, or just generally out hustling them. I’ve never tried to be accepted. When everyone is doing one thing, I’ve always had the instinct to go the other way. I don’t understand how an individual with their own mind, their own values and their own beliefs can be so willing to just follow what everybody else is doing. How can you make history doing what everybody else is doing? If you’re trying to do what everyone else is doing, it’s also going to be a lot harder for you to stand out. It makes no sense trying to hustle on a crowded block, because the prices go down, not up. I always knew my worth, I’ve always been confident, and I’ve never been curious about what other people are doing. People have a fear of the unknown. I’ve never had that fear or a fear of trying, because I consider everything a learning experience. I also never feared learning in front of people. I don’t have the insecurities other people have, because I see imperfection as perfection. I’m very confident that nobody is perfect, and those who pretend they’re perfect are exposed for being imperfect later on.  I’ve been honest about the realities of being human, but always knew my worth, and believed that if I was good at something, I should reap the benefits of it.

You emphasize being a man of principles and holding people accountable for their actions — What is your code or guiding principles you live by?

Dame Dash: For me, It’s about respect and being honest. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you bring someone around, then you’re accountable for them. If you sign on to do something and we have an understanding, I don’t care who it is, our word is bond and that’s what we abide by. I’ve been involved in a lot of situations where that was compromised, and I walked away from it. In corporate America, you’re almost required to have no integrity. There’s too much smacking in the face and bending over. I can’t do that. I will never survive in the corporate environment, because I can’t be told what to do. I also can’t accept doing something that goes against my morals or principles. I have too much pride. I’ve fought too much, and fought enough to make sure I always get the respect I deserve. Flavor doesn’t look for attention. I know what I do, and why I do it. My worth is not defined by accolades. I do things because I want to, and I love it. What’s meant to be, will be. If you fight for the culture, you’re going to get scrutinized. You’re going to get rocks thrown at you. You’re going to get crucified. All of the people that are cutting corners and cheating will always try to make it look like something that it’s not. That’s what’s great about the millennial generation — there’s cameras everywhere. You can say what you want, but everything is documented, so you can’t escape the truth.

Running a label and reaching such a peak, while seeing and experiencing everything you did within the industry — Did you always have plans to exit the music business? 

Dame Dash: I never wanted to stay in the music business, so I left. The music business was like High School to me, and there was no real money in the music business. I did not want to sit around nerds all day. I saw people with the same jobs for 20 years, all hanging out with each other, all being yes-men to each other with no morals. Character didn’t matter as long as you were doing well. I saw people only loyal to success in the moment. I also saw a lot of people getting robbed, and a lot of people who looked independent, but as soon as they got around corporate, they lost it all. Then, I didn’t see any true longevity; it wasn’t sustainable. The rap demographic is 15-25. Anything over that, you’re being irresponsible. How could you be presenting a reckless lifestyle or delivering messages that are unproductive for the culture and feel good about yourself? A lot of the things we spoke about doing when we were younger, I could never speak about now at 46, knowing I have children. I could never advocate killing or putting drugs into the world when it impacts everyone I love. We made a lot of money off of that perspective, but I evolved. I’m also a guy that gets bored easily. After I accomplish something, I want to move onto something new. I didn’t want to stick around the music business. I have an ‘I did that’ list. I wanted to do the hustling thing, and I did that. I wanted to do the music mogul thing, and I did that. I wanted to do the fashion thing, and I did that. I wanted to do the art thing, and I did that. I wanted to do the movie thing, and I did that. Now, I want to have a Diabetes network, and I’m doing that. I don’t just want to sit around in the same place, because that’s not living. My last name is Dash, and that’s what life is — a dash. To sit around and be told what to do is not living to me.

Looking at the run of Roc-A-Fella through that lens, how did you measure success or the value of what you were building? 

Dame Dash: I didn’t measure the success, because it was a stepping stone for me and I always knew that. I haven’t reached the pinnacle yet. To me, Rocafella was the lowest benchmark. I made the least amount of money from music. The funny thing is that when everybody was calling me out and saying I was broke, is actually when I had the most money. It’s funny because Hip Hop, and Urban music as a whole, is about living a flashy lifestyle. It’s a lot of insecurity and pretending you’re something that you’re not. When you’re rich, you’re broke. When you pretend you’re tough, you’re soft. When you pretend you’re cool, you’re corny. I don’t know what’s going on in Hip Hop right now. I never bought into that, it’s just something I was passionate about and wanted to do. Once I did it, I was out. Once you introduce a Kanye, a Jay Z, or a Cam’Ron to the world, what else are you supposed to do? After Hip Hop, I went into Rock music and put out Blak Roc independently. Then, I went into Jazz. After that, I opened DD172, which was a creative collective and art gallery. That was before everyone was into art or having these global conversations about creators. I do these things to set the trend and open the door so other people can do it. I know who I am, and I know my power. If I tell people to do something, they may not catch on now, but they will do it years later. I believe I’m the DNA of the millennial generation. I’m the guy who opened the collectives, went and got the art, and got the Canon 5D’s to let shooters go create content. I created the webisode. If you look at Blak Roc, I built the website, and put out webisodes. The same with Creative Control. I do things more for fun and what makes me happy — not for perception. A lot of people live for what other people think. I live for what makes me happy and I have to be proud of myself.

How did your vision evolve after being in the music business and what drove you to always expand into different industries? 

Dame Dash: I’ve always had a bigger picture. I came in the game to do everything. I was never here just to be in music. Music was just something I did first, and did it well. I empowered people and kept it moving. When I put Kevin Hart on, it didn’t come from a desire to get into comedy. I’m a funny guy, and can identify another funny guy, so I gave him a platform and directed his first three movies. When I put Lee Daniels on, I wanted to make a movie I believed in that would get me into festivals. I thought it was a smart script, so I funded the movie. Each time, I was just inspired in the moment. My job isn’t to make money off of other people, my job is to empower people I believe in, and put them in position to build their own empires. I showed Jay how to do it on his own. I showed Kanye how to do it on his own. I showed Kevin Hart how to do it on his own. I showed Lee Daniels how to do it on his own. I showed Rachel Roy how to do it on her own. I showed Cam’ron how to do it on his own. Traditionally, it’s always the artist who gets robbed, and the business man walks away rich. With me, it seems to be the opposite — I’m the one who walks away broke, but makes all of my artists rich. Then, I’m the one that gets ridiculed — How does that happen? The guy who makes sure his artists get rich gets punished the most. The only reason why is because it impacts everyone else’s hustle. I always fight for the creative, I never fight for corporate. You’ve seen that throughout my career — I’ve never respected corporate , I don’t exploit people, and I don’t respect bullies. I’ll get at somebody like Lyor Cohen, even when I’m not in the music business, on behalf of the people that are too scared to go at him.

You see so many artists and creators championing independence or demanding control of their careers — What does being independent mean to you?

Dame Dash: Independence is putting up your own money and being your own boss.  Being independent is having complete ownership of what you create. Independence is having something to pass to your children. I can tell you what independence is not — having a job, collecting a check, and having someone be able to fire you. You’re not independent if you’re not in position to give your family jobs or put your people in position to get money. Having to ask someone for a vacation, or having to wake up when you’re told — that’s not independence. Not being able to pick your kid up at a certain time because you have to work isn’t independence. To me, you’re not independent if you have clients that control how you move or how much money you can make. They’re trying to make being independent corporate so they can monetize it. Being independent is the new business model until it becomes corporate. The old corporate was the new independent back then. Before, it was about rich versus poor. Now, you have the internet, so you can see everything that goes on anywhere. You can live vicariously through the internet now, but it wasn’t like that back then. The internet makes it a lot easier to have a direct-to-consumer relationship and reach people quicker. There’s no more lying, because you see everything, so there should be no more fear.

What is the new business model for creators and how should they approach building businesses or taking ownership of their influence? 

Dame Dash:The new business model is managing your audience directly. Learn how to sell products, experiences and merchandise direct-to-consumer. An opinion leader would usually get a brand to cut them a check, and they would think it’s cool because a brand is paying them for their coolness — but that’s not cool. To me, you’re not an opinion leader if you’re not a boss. If you don’t want to invest in something your family can benefit from, and you’re only doing it for yourself, you’re a cornball. Anyone can take care of themselves. I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about my grandkids. One hundred years is three generations, and we all have to live good and do what it takes to provide for the next hundred years. Being a boss is like being a dad, you have to worry about everybody else before yourself. That’s what a boss is. There has always been a top of the pyramid, and people understand the value of an opinion leader, you’re just seeing it more now. Because of the internet, you don’t have to be so cool, you just have to be famous. I came up in a time where cool trumped fame. You could be famous, but if you were a cornball, we were laughing at you. Now, if you’re famous, you’re on television, receive all kinds of accolades and Vogue is putting you on the cover. It doesn’t matter if you’re corny or not, as long as you have money and Instagram followers. So, the state of cool is in jeopardy right now. I stopped looking at the term influencer. If being an influencer is the cool thing to do, then being an influencer is going to be corny in a minute.The role of real influencers are in jeopardy, because you have so many fake people posing to be influential when they’re really not.

What was the initial inspiration to launch Dash Diabetes network and what makes this the right moment to do it? 

Dame Dash: I’m diabetic, and one of the reasons I wasn’t extremely vocal about my battle with diabetes is because I didn’t have it all the way under control. But, when I got with Afrezza, which is an inhalable insulin instead of a needle, it gives you more control. It doesn’t take an hour and half to hit your body like using a needle does, it takes effect in 15 minutes. I was able to control my insulin and get to a level seven, which I was never able to do prior. Once that happened, I realized I can be as norman and imperfect as anyone, but still be in control of my health. That made me feel empowered to speak on it and share my experiences. This network was always on my ‘did that’ list. Once I had the capital, I wanted to create an entire network dedicated to Diabetes, bringing attention and awareness to it. Then, I found a sponsor, which provides support, but I still own the platform and the content. It just made sense at this point in my life, during this chapter of my evolution, to do something that will help people other than myself.I always wanted to show people that yes, this is one of my greatest weaknesses, but here’s how to make it a strength. I’m going to show you how to look good doing it. I f you were just diagnosed at 15, this is what you can look like at 46, because I’m diabetic. You only have one life to live. I was pretty lucky when I found out, because I thought it was something much worse. When I was told I was diabetic, instead of seeing it as a curse, I looked at it like a blessing. I started losing weight, people started getting concerned, and it felt like I was dying — but, it was Diabetes. So, I viewed the diagnosis as a second chance at life. From that point, I embraced it and lived life to the fullest. It never stopped me or became a distraction. I can step in shit and make history, and I have diabetes. I want to show people whta that looks like. I think I’m the coolest person in the world, so I believe other people will be able to look at this and feel cool and empowered despite being diabetic. Everyday, I get direct messages and emails saying that I helped save lives or people who suffered from diabetic depression that find hope and strength through seeing what we’re doing. We’re helping people every day just by living and sharing what I’m learning everyday.

What is the greater message or takeaway you want people to grasp when they’re watching the network?

Dame Dash: It’s really about getting people to be healthy and adopt healthier lifestyles, which really translates to all people. Diabetes is a lifestyle. It’s an every day, all day thing. Working out, how you eat, what you wear, and so forth. You want to do normal things, have fun and enjoy life, but you have to turn into MacGyver if something happens and you don’t have your insulin. I also want to share any new innovations that can make your life easier, and show people what to do when certain situations happen. I’ve lost needles on planes, jets, boats and everything. There’s also taking into account what it takes to get insulin, because its expensive to be a diabetic. If you have insurance or not, it’s going to cost you $1,000 a month. That’s $12,000 for medicine regardless. One out of every three people will be diabetic in the next few years. I also just learned the number one cause of diabetes is meat, but nobody talks about it. Before that, I used to think eating sugar was worse than eating a slice of bread — but bread has so many carbs in it, that a sandwich can kill you before a piece of candy. When you’re diabetic, your feet hurt, you have nerve damage, and have to worry about losing limbs. This network is about being proactive, providing solutions, and giving people the information they need to live healthy lives with diabetes. People with debates have a bond. Anything I learn, I want to make it accessible to people who can’t have access to it. Health is your true wealth. It’s not just about being able to create a life for your kids, it’s about being a live to share that life with them.

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